[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index
WOMEN IN BURMA
I HAVE BEEN RELEASED. THATS ALL.
NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
(Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)
Burmese Women's Union(BWU), August 1995
Women in Burma
Published by Burmese Women Union(BWU) for the Fourth UN Conference on
Women, Beijing, China September 1995 Funded by National Coaliation
Government of Union of Burma(NCGUB) Information Office Washington USA
Photographs courtesy of Steve Lehman, AFP, The Nation, Images Asia,
Burma Information Group, Burma Issue and All Burma Students'
(The Burmese Women Union(BWU) was founded by a group of female
students on Thai-Burmese border on January 7, 1995. BWU is an
independent organization whithout influence of any organization or any
political party. Any Burmese women who belives in the aims and
objectives of the BWU can be a member of the BWU regardless of their
ethnic origin or political belife. The aims and objectives of the
BWUare;(l) To promote the role of the Burmese women in politics, (2)
To practise women 's rights recognised by the standard of international
community and distribute them among Burmese society and (3) To apply
the physical and intellectual power of the women so that it will assist
support the emergence of a modern, advanced, peaceful and a new
democratic union in Burma.)
Printed in Singapore
Women in Burma
Though historians say that in ancient times women could hold even the
highest administrative positions, the role of women in Burmese history is
blurred. The Burmese have always been proud of saying "The hands that
sway the cradle could rule the world". Even so, the status and
opportunities Burmese society offered women of all classes did not equal
that enjoyed by their men.
Under successive Burmese dynasties, the primary task for women has
been to fulfil the wishes of men. Women were often given to the king as
gifts, and a king could have any woman he wished. Whenever a king died,
it was taken for granted that his wives would become wives of the new
Up until the present day, girls are told by their parents to behave
femininely and respect men as their superiors. A woman has to "respect
(her) son as Master and (her) husband as God" in order to be called "a
good woman". It is still widely held that a woman's responsibilities are
cooking, cleaning and child care. Traditional Burmese society
discourages women from pursuing higher learning and working like men,
thus hampering improvement of women's status.
During three decades of military rule in Burma, the plight of Burmese
women has steadily deteriorated. Burmese army violations of the human
rights of the people are without limit. Men and women are arbitrarily
arrested for service as porters and forced to carry arms and ammunitions
for the military during its offensives against ethnic minority groups.
Sometimes they are forced to cross mine fields at gun point. At night,
women are raped by the soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of people,
including pregnant women, are being forced to work as slave labour for
infrastructure projects, such as building airports, bridges, railway
About one and a half million families have been forcibly relocated from
their homes in the cities or towns to new satellite towns in rural areas
where there is no electricity, no clean water and no proper
It is women who have suffered most of the harsh consequences of social
and economic collapse. Just meeting the survival needs of a family has
become increasingly difficult for poor mothers.
The social, economic, educational and political setback plaguing the
country for so many years has left many Burmese girls and women with
little choice but to enter the sex industry in Burma, Thailand or other
neighbouring countries for their survival. About 200,000 young people
have become drug addicts. As a consequence of these developments,
between 400,000 and 500,000 persons are estimated by the WHO to be
HlV-positive in Burma. Although the situation of Burmese women seems
better than that of their counterparts in some countries in South Asia
the Middle East, they are suffering gravely under the social and economic
pressures in the country and are being severely oppressed by the Burmese
In 1962, the Burmese army (the Tatmadaw in Burmese), lead by General
Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected government. A one party
system of government under the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP)
led by army generals was introduced and the economy was nationalised.
The coup effectively put an end to political and economic freedom.
Burma, extremely rich in natural resources and once known as the "Rice
bowl of Asia", is.today forced to import rice. At the end of 1987, Burma
was given Least Developed Country status by the United Nations, thus
rated along with Ethiopia and Bangladesh as one of the ten poorest
countries in the world.
A quarter of a century of lack of freedom and development of skills under
the mismanagement ofthe Burmese military generals, had by 1988
resulted in a situation in which the Burmese economy, educational
system and all other basic infrastructure were in ruins. In the spring
summer of that year the people's discontent virtually exploded. Hundreds
of thousands of people led by students took to the streets and called for
an end of one party rule. The Burmese army completely ignored the
wishes of the people and brutally suppressed the peaceful
On September 18,1988, the military dissolved its own parliament and set
up another ruling body called t}3e State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC). Several thousand students, Buddhist monks and
civilians were gunned down in the streets. Thousands of demonstrators
were thrown into prison while many thousand others were forced to flee
to the Burmese border areas controlled by ethnic resistance groups.
Although SLORC had promised to hold a multi-party election and make
Burma a democratic country, members of the political parties and student
activists were arrested by military intelligence agents. At that time,
Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary General of the National League for
Democracy party (NLD) and daughter of Burma's national hero Gen.
Aung San, became a political focal point by openly defying the rule of
the Burmese army. She was detained on July 20,1989, (nearly one year
before the election) without trial. In spite of the fact that she
detention, her party won over 80% of the seats in parliament. To this
SLORC has refused to accept the result of the election. Violations of
human rights occur widely in Burma. Unlawful detention, execution,
torture, rape, forced labour and forced relocation are common practices
the ruling military junta. The United Nations Commission on Human
Rights has appointed a Special Rapporteur on Burma to investigate
human rights violations in the country for five consecutive years. The
Special Rapporteur's reports show that violations of human rights in
Burma are steadily worsening.
1. Burmese Women in Pro-Democracy Movements
(a) During the 1988 Uprising
In March 1988, female students joined the anti-government
demonstrations. On March 16, 1988, hundreds of students demonstrating
on the street were blocked and beaten by riot police. Some concentrated
on the female students; their jewellery and watches were snatched and
later they were raped. Many were too ashamed to tell anyone. Some were
in shock for four or five days. Some cried and requested to be sent to a
nunnery without giving their parents any reason. Some of them
committed suicide upon their release. About 100 students, female as well
as male, were drowned in a nearby lake while trying to escape the
A male student who was at the scene related how he and his sister were
arrested by riot police and his sister was raped by a prison guard. She
detained in Insein prison in Rangoon for a month. After she was released,
she could not speak and walk properly. A year later, she wanted to go and
see her mother who was in Japan. However, the military authorities
refused to give her a passport. This was the time she entered into
As a result of her hardships, she came to suffer from a mental disorder.
In spite ofthe military's brutality, some female students, teachers,
and lawyers continued to be at the forefront of the anti-government
demonstrations. The housewives' Union was formed to voice women's
demands for democracy and freedom.
(b) After the Military Coup
On September 18, 1988, the Burmese arrny seized power in a military
coup, and in the process gunned down several thousand peaceful
demonstrators throughout the country. Martial law was announced and
military tribunals introduced. Gatherings of more than five people were
banned. The head of the Burmese military junta said 'We are ruling the
country by martial law. Martial law means no law at all.' Burma had
become a complete police state.
While tyrannising dissidents, the Burmese ruling military junta promised
to hold a multi-party democracy election and allowed political parties to
be formed. In October 1988, the major opposition party National League
for Democracy (NLD) was formed. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became
Secretary General of the party and a female lawyer, Daw Myint Myint
Khin, was elected as a member of the Central Executive Committee. Daw
San San Nwe (Tharyarwaddy), and Shwegu May Hnin, both writers, were
elected as Central Committee members. A university teacher, Ma
Theingee and a doctor and writer, Ma Thida (Sari Chaung) became Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi's personal secretaries. All of these women were
arrested in 1989 or soon after. Daw San San Nwe and Ma Thida are still
in prison, serving sentences of 15 and 20 years respectively.
The first women's political party, The Union for the Improvement of
Myanmar Women, was formed in October 1991. The group's aims were to
achieve peace, democracy, equal justice, improvement of the lives of
women, national unity and to preserve world peace. They had thirty-three
Central Executive Committee members.
During the 1990 multi-party election, only 84 out of 2,296 candidates
were women. Out of 485 members of parliament elected in the May 1990
election, fifteen were women. Four women MPs, Daw San San (Sake
Kan, Rangoon), Daw San San Win (Ah Lone, Rangoon), Daw Ohn Kyi
(Myit Tha, Mandalay) and Daw Khin San Hlaing (Wat Lat, Sit Kaing)
were arrested by SLORC in connection with the formation of a parallel
government. Although Daw San San has been released, it is not known
whether the rest of the women MPs are still in prison or not. Today, the
movements of the political parties including the NLD are totally limited.
Political gatherings, meetings and making speeches are strictly
Publication of newsletters, bulletins and journals by political parties
banned. Instead, the Burmese military junta has created several puppet
grass root organisations and 'NGO's such as Union Solidarity and
Development Association(USDA), Myanmar Medical Association,
Myanmar Red Cross Society, Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare
Association, Myanmar Women's Sports Federation and Myanmar Women
(c) Border Areas
After the bloody military crack down in 1988, several thousand students,
teachers, lawyers, doctors and other civilians fled to the Burmese border
areas controlled by armed ethnic groups who have been fighting against
the Burmese army for over 40 years. There the students founded the All
Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF). The ABSDF joined with
the ethnic resistance groups in their struggle for democracy and human
rights in Burma. Several independent women's organisations have also
sprung up in the border areas. The following women's organisations have
been founded along the Burmese border with the aims of promoting the
rights of women within their respective ethnic groups and in Burma as a
1. Karen Women's Organisation (KWO)
2. Mon Women's Organisation (MWO)
3. Indigenous Women's Development Centre (IWDC)
4. Karenni Women's Organisation (KNWO)
5. Women's Association of Shan State (WASS)
6. Burmese Women Union (BWU)
2. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma
For the Burmese people Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a symbol for freedom
and symbol for equal justice. Her unexpected release this year was a
encouragement for Burmese women and men in their fight for freedom
and human rights in their country.
When she was awarded the 1991 Noble Peace Prize, the Norwegian
Nobel Committee noted: "Suu Kyi ' s struggle is one of the most
extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She
has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression. She
also emphasises the need for conciliation between the sharply
divided}egions and ethnic groups in her country. The Norwegian Nobel
Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to
show its support for the many people throughout the world who are
striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by
As Secretary General of the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered more
than a thousand speeches during her extensive campaign tours throughout
the country from 1988 to 1989. She advocated democracy, human rights,
discipline and 'freedom from fear'. On July 20, 1989, she was placed
under house arrest by SLORC without trial. Because of growing
international pressure, she was released on July 10, 1995, after six
of unlawful detention.
Upon her release, the first thing she asked for was the release of all
political prisoners and dialogue with the Burmese military junta for
national reconciliation. "I have been released. That's all. Nothing has
changed," she said.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has received over 20 awards, honorary
memberships, and honorary doctorates, including the 1992 Award of
Progressive Women by the Spanish Federation of Progressive Women.
3. Current Situation of Women in Burma
When it comes to women in Burmese society, they are supposed to keep
the household and look after the children, but not make decisions for the
family as the men do. Today, the lives of women are in a very difficult
and exhausting stage. They are the ones who directly suffer the
consequences of the high and rising prices of basic commodities and the
consequences of the forced relocations and forced labour by the ruling
junta every day.
When a Burmese woman gets married, she is usually expected to quit her
job in order to take care of the household and' children. Therefore,
women often depend on their husbands and get less education than the
men. The husband gives whatever amount of money he wishes to the wife,
but it is the responsibility of the wife to handle the affairs and needs
the whole family.
To provide for their families, many women at some stage forced to seek
work to support their families, but they will earn less than their
because of their low educational level. Women are afraid of divorcing
their husbands, and once they marry a man they are to be with him for
their whole life. Only the woman would be blamed in case of divprce, and
she would be looked down upon by her community.
Public health education is very poor and many women have very limited
knowledge about sex, pregnancy, family planning, reproduction and
abortion. The 1995 UNICEF report on Children and Women in Burma
analysed the situation this way: "The paucity of information on women
reproductive health in Myanmar is in itself an indication that many of
their needs are unrecognised." According to the report, 80 per cent of
births in Burma take place in the home, and 32 per cent of all births are
not attended by trained health personnel. Forthe 20 per cent of all
that take place in a hospital, the Maternal Mortality Rate estimates at
per 100,000 live births.
Although there are no specific data on maternal malnutrition, cases of
poor maternal nutrition, low birth weight and growth-retarded babies,
micronutrient deficiencies(iodine and iron deficiencies) and malaria
infections are causes for concern in Burma, the report said. It added
the spread of HIV/AIDS also poses a serious threat in Burma.
No Burmese has an automatic right to higher education, which remains
under the strict
control of the junta. However, women are more discriminated against than
men under the current system. Although women enjoy, equal rights up to
the high school level, and female students in fact are in the majority at
institutions of higher learning, Burmese universities have sex quotas for
technical majors such as Engineering, Forestry, Geology and Dentistry.
These subjects, providing skills that are highly marketable abroad (large
numbers of Burmese now work in Thailand, Singapore and Japan) are
extremely hard for women to enter. For instance, only 10% of the
entrants for dentistry can be women, whereas for forestry the quota is
zero. After finishing their studies, women are less likely to be accepted
for positions in an undeveloped economy flooded with arts and sciences
Since Burma became independent from Britain in 1947, there has been
none but one woman servingattheministerial level. Shewas Daw Khin
Kyi, wifeofBurma's national hero Gen. Aung San and mother of Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi, serving as a cabinet minister in 1960 - 61.
After the first military coup in 1962, there were only a handful of women
even in the puppet parliament. Women occupied only ten percent of other
administrative positions, and even less today. The military generals have
stated repeatedly that they would never accept a woman becoming the
leader of Burma.
According to the principles laid down by SLORC for the 'National
Convention' convened by the military junta to draft a new constitution
Burma, the Head of State is to have experience in military affairs. This
would effectively exclude a woman from becoming a Head of State. At
the 'National Convention', as most of the delegates are hand-picked by
the junta, only a tiny percentage of the delegates are women.
4. Civil War and the Plight of Ethnic Minority Women
Women have suffered most of the consequences of over 40 years of civil
war in Burma. Especially the women of the ethnic minorities are
suffering the effects of the civil war, but their voices have been silenced.
During the 1991 dry season offensive, over 10,000 civilians, including
3,000 women were press-ganged into porterage by SLORC's troops. They
were not given enough food and at were ill-treated by SLORC soldiers.
When they were tired and unable to carry heavy loads, they were beaten
with bamboo sticks and rifle butts. Some were bayoneted and stabbed
with knives. Porters who tried to escape were shot dead. Porters who
suffered sickness on the way were left in the deep forest without medical
care. Female porters were not only forced to carry heavy loads, but also
gang-raped at night.
(b) Sexual abuses
Most ofthe sexual abuses and sexual slavery are perpetratedby SLORC
soldiers. In the areas of military occupation, such abuses are common.
SLORC military commanders frequently summon local womenat any
age and regardless of whether they are married or notto their outposts
for questioning and rape at gun point. Sometimes, her husband a
children were forced to watch as she was being raped by soldiers. Many
of these cases have been systematically documented by the Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch/ Asia and other international human
rights organisations, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on
human rivhts on Burma.
(c) Forced labour
The development models that have been adapted by the regime in the
context of Burmese military rule have led to the impoverishment of many
women. In the name of so-called development programmes, women and
children are not spared forced recruitment into what amounts to slave
labour. Thev toil at public
works, for infrastructure and on more specific 'tourism promotion'
projects, i.e. cleaning the moat around Mandalay Palace. Not only do
they not receive any pay, they also have to provide their own food.
Furthemore, as they are forced to work as labourers, they have to leave
their own jobs, cutting of their source of income. As a result they
orovide *or the proper education of
their children. At 0e work side, the forced labourers do not receive
appropriate medical treatment Those who are too weak for the stenuous
work must hire other persons or pay a fine. Human Rights Watch/Asia
estimates that since 1992 at least two million people have been forced
to work without pay on government projects.
(d) Forced relocotion
Many people have been uprooted from their home communities by
SLORC's relocation campaigns, herded into cramped, noisome
cocentration camps, sometimes separated from their families, often
deprived of adequate food and clean water, and frquently subjected to
beatings, back-breaking forced labour, devastatings diseases, and
repeated rape. Providing a decent life for one's own children is nearly
impossible in the unstable environment of a civil war. Educadon, health
ca e, proper nutrition peace, safety, care-free play, and appropriate
timulation are longed for treasures, far out of reach fbr most women
Other women face the experience of internal diplacement, hiding out in
the jungle, not knowing where to go next, or how to find food
or medicine for the hungry and sick. Accoding to the report of the UN
Special Rapporteur on human rights in Buma, there are over a million
internally displaced people in areas near the border to Thailand.
Most of the 80,000 Bumese refugees along the Thai-Buma boder are
Women From the ethnic minorities. They face various difficulties and
hardships. The death rate of women in refugee camps is very high. They
mainly die of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea
cholera, because of shortage of essential medicines and lack of medical
treament Some have died of malnutrition.
5. Trafficking of Burmese Women
According to an unpublished report by WHO, between 400,000 and
5OO,OOO persons in Burma are HIV positive. However this number is
only the tip of the ice-berg, according to some medical experts and
About 40,000 Bumese women and children, mostly aged between 10 and
16, have been forced to work a brothels in Thailand. With the collusion
of police and military personnel from Burma and Thailand young victims
are sent to Thailand where they were sold at the price of US$ 560 and
brced into prostitution. These slave prostitutes include both ethnic
Burmans and hill tribe people from Burma. They are forced to have sex
under life-threatening conditions. If an owner learns of any attempt to
escape, the women in question are confined without food, beaten and
sometimes even killed.
In Burma, the pursuit of liberty for women from oppression and of
women's rights in general is inextricably intertwined with the ongoing
struggle for liberation of the whole population from the SLORC's iron
fist and for restoration of democracy and human rights. The issues cannot
be separated; those who struggle for genuine democracy must also focus
on the specific hardships inflicted on women solely because of their sex.
The lack of women's representation in the government, institutions,
religious organisations and business enterprises in Burma clearly shows
that the voices of women are being silenced. Only a few women in
Burma hold positions in such
organisations and decision making bodies, and the majority of women are
suffering from all forms of social, economic, educational, health and
political problems and discriminations .
It is essential that the ruling Burmese military junta ratify and adhere
all the UN Conventions on Human Rights; specifically that it:
ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Disrimination against Women
ratify the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women
respect the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (ratified by
It is also essential that SLORC release all political prisoners in Burma
and start dialogue with Burmese democracy groups led by Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi and representatives of the ethnic minorities, in order to achieve
peace, stability, economic and social development and an accelerated
democratisation process in Burma.
One can not excuse violations of women's rights or discrimination against
women by invoking culture, tradition or religion. It is the everyone's
to condemn, prevent, punish and stop the continued oppression of
women, in Burma as in the rest of the world.